Wise People Bring Gifts
Matthew 2:1-12 1st John 5:3 Psalm 103
seems to complain about Christmas shopping.
What are we supposed to give
the relative who already has more clothes than she’ll ever wear, more books
than she’ll ever read, and three waffle irons as well?
Why are the stores so dreadfully overheated when all the shoppers are
wearing overcoats and winter boots anyway? Why
do so many salespersons seem to resent being asked to help when selling is their
job? Still, despite our complaining
about having to buy gifts, we continue to purchase them.
The real reason we keep purchasing gifts and giving them to those dear to
us is that we relish giving them; we enjoy giving gifts even more than we enjoy
receiving them. We are more excited,
more suspenseful, when we watch someone else open the gift we have given than we
are when we open the gift given to us. And
we know why. Giving a gift is
recognition of the recipient’s
worthiness. It’s also a
declaration of that person’s significance to us.
Most importantly, giving a gift is a vehicle for giving ourselves.
Two millennia ago three Gentile men brought gifts to a Jewish child.
They brought them for the same three reasons that we give gifts: they
were recognising the child’s worthiness; they were declaring the child’s
significance to them, and they were giving themselves to the child in the act of
giving their gifts. Their gifts were
gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Today
we are going to examine each gift. Let’s
start with frankincense.
I: -- Frankincense was
incense used in worship. In bringing
incense to Jesus the wise men were admitting that Jesus is worthy of worship.
Gentiles though they were, they knew that God alone is to be worshipped.
They knew too that nothing so horrified Jewish people as idolatry.
Then in worshipping the
And it’s precisely this notion that so very many people find
unpalatable. They say it turns
simple truth (as it were) into impenetrable labyrinth.
Why not look upon Jesus as a splendid example, they ask, even a fine
teacher, even a prophet, even the greatest of the prophets?
He is all these, to be sure;
yet the three visitors knew him to be so much more as well.
Within the church precincts there are always to be found those who
secretly (or not so secretly) would really prefer to be unitarians.
Unitarians speak of Jesus in glowing terms.
Their admiration for him is genuine.
Yet however much of the New Testament’s depiction of Jesus they esteem
they finally reject the substance of the New Testament.
For the apostles insist that this one Jew who knew that God alone is to
be worshipped accepted the worship people rendered him and even insisted
on it. Knowing it was blasphemy to
claim to be Son of God, he yet claimed it. When
Thomas fell before him in the wake of Easter Jesus didn’t say, “Now, now
Thomas, there’s no need to get carried away. You
flatter me with your exaggeration.” Our
Lord never said that Thomas was exaggerating or had been carried away. When our
Lord’s detractors had hissed at him, “Why do you pronounce forgiveness?
Only God can do that” Jesus
had replied, “My point exactly.”
The secret or not-so-secret unitarians among us maintain that the notion
of incarnation is too narrow. Alas,
they forget one thing: the effectiveness of a knife depends on the narrowness of
its cutting edge. No one can do
life-saving surgery with a crowbar. Church
history demonstrates again and again that God surges over people and over
congregations rendering them forever different
not when God-in-general is talked about but rather when Jesus-in-particular is
exalted. When Paul announces that
he’s not ashamed of the gospel just because he knows the gospel to be God’s
power for salvation (Romans
), he’s always aware that the gospel is
ultimately the risen, ascended Son himself.
This one person and no one else seized him and shook him.
Apart from this one person the world would never have heard of the little
One of my favourite scriptural episodes is that of the man born blind in
John 9. Jesus enables the man to
see. (Seeing, of course, is a
biblical metaphor for knowing.)
Are people overjoyed to have the fellow now able to see?
On the contrary they harass him. Finally
the man himself, simply knowing, says,
“Listen. I was blind, I can see,
and I know who did it.” And still
they harass him.
When today, in our midst, the Incarnate one himself renders forever different the man or woman who can only speak simply yet gratefully
of herself as lost and now found, dead and now alive, immobilised and now freed,
silent and now speaking on behalf of her Lord; when it happens today detractors
and assailants are as insensitive and aggressive as they were then.
The theologian, embarrassed by the new believer’s simple testimony
and wishing to take refuge in religious complexity, comments, “But are you
aware of epichoresis and enhypostasia?” (Epichoresis
is the mutual coinherence of the persons of the Trinity.
Enhypostasia we’ll leave for another day.)
The philosopher asks, “Are you aware of the metaphysical
presuppositions of your assertion?” “Metaphysics”
is a new word for the sighted blind man and he thinks it has something to do
with Eno’s fruit salts. The
psychologist suggests, “Let’s talk about your relationship with your
parents say, “We sent you to Sunday School all those years; we even sent
you to Rev. Snodgrass’s confirmation class.
And now you are telling us that only recently, when you really grasped
the truth of the Incarnation, Jesus Christ himself lit you up?”
The clergy say.
What do the clergy say? Not
much. Being face-to-face with
someone who glows with the assurance that she sees and knows where earlier she
was blind and unaware; this bothers many clergy.
Meanwhile, of course, the browbeaten person continues to say, “I was
blind, I can see, and I know who did it. What’s
The wise men brought frankincense. They
worshipped the child. They weren’t
idolaters. They simply bowed in glad, grateful adoration before him who is in
fact the effectual presence of God.
II: -- The wise men
brought gold as well. Gold was the
gift that befitted a king. In the
child they recognized the royal ruler.
It’s most important that we not stop with frankincense but offer gold
as well. Not only are we to worship
our Lord; we must also obey him. It’s
too easy to worship him (or think we do) and then forget him; too easy to think
we can profit from the salvation he has won for us yet refuse the sacrifice he
requires of us; too easy to call upon him when we need him for ourselves yet
ignore him when he needs us for work in his world; too easy to speak of what he
has done in us while shunning what he
needs to do through us.
In short, it’s too easy to cheapen grace by claiming forgiveness from
him while disdaining obedience to him.
Authentic believers always know that obedience isn’t onerous.
Obedience is life; obedience is blessing.
“His commandments are not burdensome" John exclaims in his first
epistle. (1 John 5:3) Why aren’t
they burdensome? Because the
obedience we render our Lord is the natural expression of what he has made us by
Gold? Of course.
He is the royal ruler who claims our obedience.
If he has touched our eyes and made us to see then we know
our obedience to be not irksome but rather the following of that path where
life grows richer, even as other paths invariably find life growing poorer.
I used to think it was children, even adolescents, who had difficulty
getting the point that while we can do anything in life that we want, anything
we do entails momentous consequences. I have found
that most adults are as slow to grasp this point as any child or adolescent.
Any choice we make, any option we pursue, any decision we settle on;
these have irretrievable consequences. To
expect anything else is to expect magic. Even
the most enlightened people in our enlightened age, I have found, actually
expect an infantile world of magic, only to rage and curse and lament and whine
when, at age 40 or 50 or 60, it comes home to them that there is no magic and
the option they pursued back then now has
consequences pursuing them. To be
sure, in our non-magical world there are also consequences to obeying Jesus
Christ; these consequences, however, are all blessing.
“His commandments are not burdensome.”
The apostle John wrote these words inasmuch as he had proven them true
over and over in his own experience. But
what had moved him to try them, try them out, as it were, in the first place?
He had seen the commandments of Christ fulfilled in Christ himself.
He had seen his Lord live what
his Lord asks of his followers. He
had seen that what his Lord lived was incomparably better, more satisfying than
any “life” (so-called) he had seen to date, including his own.
Then why not “give it a try”? And
when Jesus had said to his disciples, “Take my
yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and
my burden is light”, John had seen
the truth exemplified in the yoke-maker himself.
We must always remember that it’s impossible to be yokeless.
Something is going to determine
how we live and what we do and where we go and whom we obey.
Our yoke can be an upbringing that we have put on unthinkingly; it can be
New Age ideology (or something akin to it) that we put on deliberately; it can
be the mindset that characterises our social class inasmuch as the last thing we
want is to appear out-of-step with our social class; it can be capitulation to
craving, whether our craving be for illicit sex or social climbing or financial
superiority or intellectual snobbery. These
are all yokes. They all appear easy
and light but in fact prove themselves so very onerous that the yoke strangles
and the burden crushes. Jesus says,
“Since yokelessness is impossible; since something
inside you or outside you determines what you do, how you live, ultimately who
you are, why not try my yoke?
For my yoke fits well and doesn’t strangle; my burden is light and
doesn’t crush. In fact my yoke is
like the well-fitted yoke that allows the ox to work all day without choking
itself; my burden is no more burdensome than wings are to a bird or fins are to
a fish or skates are to a hockey player;
no burden at all.” It was
because the apostle John had first seen his Lord do
that truth which the master now urged upon all; it was because John had first
found it so very attractive that he had come to try it for himself, then had
found it easy and light, and finally had come to write, “His commandments are
The wise men brought gold. They
were acknowledging their rightful ruler. They
wanted only to obey their Lord and therein “find” themselves.
III: -- Lastly the wise
men brought myrrh. Myrrh was a
medicinal substance used for healing. The
wise men admitted Jesus to be the healer; the
healer, the healer of the world’s
dis-ease, the world’s wounds, the world’s distress and disorder and dismay.
Today we associate healing almost exclusively with the reversal of
physical illness and the discomfort associated with such illness.
No one wishes to belittle this. Anyone
who has found relief even in aspirin for headache or backache or toothache
isn’t going to belittle healing in the sense of reversing physical illness.
At the same time, the biggest ills in life aren’t physical.
The most significant ill in life isn’t the broken bone or the arthritic
joint or the gall stones or even that illness which will close out our earthly
existence. The biggest wounds in
life are the rent that has occurred between God and us, together with the rent
that opens up between us and those dearest us, plus the seemingly chronic dis-ease that leaves us knowing something is
profoundly out of order inside ourselves even as we are unable to name it or fix
is where healing is most sorely needed.
Since I am a professor of historical theology I often return in mind and
heart to the earliest days of the Eighteenth Century Awakening when John Wesley
and George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards inadvertently touched a match to
tinder and something burst into flame that surprised them as much as it
surprised anyone else. I ask myself
what was in the match that these men struck. There
were many ingredients in the match, of course, one of which was their tireless
insistence, “God can do something with sin beyond forgiving it.”
People hungered to hear this and thereafter proved it.
“God can do something with sin beyond forgiving it.”
What can God do?
“This is what some of you used
to be. But you were washed, you were
sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the
Spirit of our God.”
That healer whom the wise men adored was the fulfilment of Psalm 103.
The psalmist cries, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all
God’s benefits. He forgives all
your iniquity and heals all your diseases.” (Ps. 103:2-3)
It’s glorious that God forgives all our iniquity; more glorious still
that he does something with our iniquity beyond forgiving it: he heals
all our diseases.
All of them?
Yes. Because Jesus is
resurrection and life he heals us of that disease which closes out our earthly
existence; and in healing us of this he heals us of all those diseases that
anticipate it. Then what about the
remaining dis-eases, the ones I mentioned a minute ago: the deepest rent between
us and him, between us and each other, between us and our truest self: does he
heal these too? What the psalmist
wrote he wrote out of his experience of the Christmas gift given to him a thousand years
Gentiles spared nothing to get themselves to a Jewish newborn.
They wanted to bring the child gifts.
They brought frankincense, for they were bowing in worship before one whom they
ought to worship just because he was, and is, Emmanu-el, “God-with-us.”
They brought gold, for they were obediently submitting themselves to their
rightful ruler, only to learn subsequently that unlike all other yokes and
burdens in life his yoke is easy and his burden light.
They brought myrrh, for they knew that in Jesus of Nazareth there had appeared
it all, of course, the wise men knew that their gift-giving was the vehicle of
their uttermost giving of themselves. These
men were wise, really wise.